Photography: Combining image and text

In 2014 when the project ‘an impossible freedom’ was taking shape, I researched other projects that combined image and text.  I had already decided from the outset that my own project would need to incorporate the written word, in order to convey what it was that I wanted to convey, so it was useful to look at other artists using words within or alongside their images, explore their reasons for doing so, and how this impacted on me as viewer.

This work came to mind again last week when I read on an exhibition panel a quote from abstract painter Roger Hilton:

“Words and paintings don’t go together.” 

However, Hilton seemed to be talking about the explanations of paintings rather than words being a part of the art.  He is quoted as saying “The more words that are written about a painting the less people will see the painting.  Half the difficulty that people find in ‘understanding’ painting is that they think they have to put it into words.  The only way to understand a painting is to look at it.  No amount of reading about it will help.” (Hilton, 1958 from a panel at Abbot Hall Art Gallery). 

Many people feel the same about photography – that the image should speak entirely for itself – but there are often good reasons for wishing to incorporate text into a visual project.

This is an extract from my research notes as I explored the combination of text and image in art and photography.   Hilton’s re-opening of my thoughts about ‘words and paintings’ prompted me to share it, in case others considering/using word and image may find it useful or of interest.



Combining text and image

Portraying emotional experience through visual means alone is challenging and the addition of text can enhance or strengthen the experience of viewing. In antique texts religious writings accompanied imagery as if reinforcing the power and meanings of biblical messages by providing two channels of interpretation, an idea which has continued over centuries into modern history and non-religious art.

Figure 4. Fragment from Quedlinburg Itala, c390

In the 19th and 20th centuries, art movements fluctuated between their level of ambiguity of text within images, from the blurred newspapers and shop signs of Impressionist painting, to the bold clear statements of Post-modern art from the 1960s onwards. In contemporary art photography, text is often included to enhance the experience of viewing by adding impact to a message or providing information that, if omitted, would fail to convey the intended story behind the image.

Philosopher Merleau-Ponty wrote of his own experience of becoming immersed in the meaning of a written text so much that he is distracted from the presence of the type itself, the text therefore promoting “its own oblivion”. Of written words he states “from the moment I am caught up in their meaning, I lose sight of them. The paper, the letters on it, my eye and the body are there only as the minimum setting of some invisible operation … that is why its mediating role may pass unnoticed.” (Merleau-Ponty, M. quoted in Morley, 2003, p13) The invisible operation that Merleau-Ponty describes explains the role of text in stimulating the imagination, just as photographic images do. If the two are carefully combined then photography coupled with text is likely to prompt a different set of questions for the viewer, as the invisible is interwoven with the visible, but this is in addition to the image itself also having its own invisibility.   Meaning then becomes a complex layering of evidence, clues and interpretation of both image and text.

“A photograph, when it stands on its own, potentially has mutilayered meanings … Combined with text or text fragments, various possible meanings contained in a photograph can be orientated to divergent discursive directions.” (Van Gelder and Westgeest, 2011, p165)

Jo Spence’s images include text applied to her own body to communicate her thoughts and feelings during medical treatment. This application of text directly to the skin emphasises the disempowerment she was feeling as a result of illness and medical interventions. To Spence, her body was not her own any more and so the text and image combination became a protest against the way she was being treated in the traditional healthcare system.

Figure 5. Jo Spence/Maggie Murray/Rosy Martin, 
 How do I take responsibility for my own body?  c1984

Spence also explored ideas of family in her work, believing that family conventions are fed to us from babyhood and desiring to free herself from these embedded behaviours and beliefs.   She acknowledged that questioning into the family construct often came at a time of personal challenge. “No wonder it takes an intellectual explosion to shift […] perception, or a major disaster in our lives which causes such disjuncture that we begin to ask new questions.” (Spence, 1986, p213).

Known for adding text to existing images is visual artist Barbara Kruger. Kruger’s work uses appropriated magazine and publicity images to address her concerns pertaining to contemporary life, “synopses of lived experience that concretize how askew our lives are” (Indiana in Kruger, 1999, p10). Her work combines cut out newspaper advertising images and newsprint style text to powerful effect. Kruger’s work also includes public art where she creates lines of text, sometimes on a giant scale, to encourage discussion and thought around different issues, using the “tools of mass communications to subvert the myths perpetuated by the powerful” (Heller in Kruger, 1999, p109). This use of subversive art has its own power, not only through text and image, but also in situ as Kruger emblazons lorries, t-shirts and billboards to convey her messages to a wider public. In addition to appropriating existing media images, Kruger also took her own photographs for her work Hospital (1978) which shows stark images alongside thought-provoking texts.  The boldness and urgency of Kruger’s work is achieved through the combination of image and text. If separated, either element loses impact, as they must be anchored to one another for meaning to be successfully and powerfully conveyed.

Figure 6. Barbara Kruger, Thinking of you

Ed Ruscha’s work often utilises text alone to convey thought and evoke a response, however he also combines text with image for example in his large poster-sized work Pay nothing until April (2003) which has a clean and simple font overlaying a crisply painted mountain scene. The text in this case is very pertinent to current times with credit and debt forming a large part of people’s lifestyles and this statement along with a scene conveying the simplicity of the natural world creates an effective juxtaposition.

Figure 7. Ed Ruscha, Pay nothing until April, 2003

However, if text added to an image can reinforce a message, it can also mislead.   Juergen Teller’s work Pictures and text (2012) includes personal explanations for each image giving the viewer insight into his world including elements of family and personal history. One image The Knickers (2012) leads us by title and first glance to thinking that the image features underwear when on closer look we realise that the ‘knickers’ the subject is wearing over their face are in fact a jaw bone from a shark. This misinterpretation is increased by the use of the misleading title and demonstrates the strength of a caption in leading us to believe one thing or another, and Teller’s work is informing of the responsibility when adding text to an image. “I find it very interesting that people don’t often look closely at photographs. They make quick assumptions without looking” (Teller, 2012, no page number).

Figure 8. Juergen Teller, The knickers, 2012

Captions can also provide information where an image doesn’t provide any readable information at all. Broomberg and Chanarin’s series of photograms from Afghanistan show only the reaction of paper and chemicals in the heat and sunlight of a war zone. The addition of titles to these accidental strips of colour utilising phrases such as The Brother’s Suicide (2008) invokes an emotional response and, as a series of works, provides an insight into the horrors of the environment in which these photograms were made. “The works are totally non-representational. In a way we went to Afghanistan to get some captions”. (Chanarin, O. in Van Gelder and Westgeest, 2011, p194).

Some photographers include a substantial amount of text with images for example Taryn Simon. Simon’s book ‘An American index of the hidden and unfamiliar’ (2008) is evidence of the informative and educational capability of text and image combined. Her detailed explanations encourage a new level of thought by offering information that is not apparent solely by viewing the images on subjects not commonly known. For example “The Hoh Rainforest, Understory and Fort Structure, Olympic National Park, Washington” (Simon, 2008, p31) appears at first glance to be an image of an overgrown forest landscape, lush and green, showing ferns and twisted moss-covered branches. The accompanying text, however, tells us of the forest’s protected status, the history of the area, the biodiversity and the newly discovered cancer treatment found in one of the trees in the region. This additional knowledge for the viewer adds layer upon layer of interest into an otherwise fairly ordinary landscape scene. The depth of her explanations draw the viewer in to a much greater story and once the information is known it remains with the viewer. When revisiting the image after the initial reading, the viewer will always be aware of the deep and interesting story within the image, and may develop new consideration when viewing other similar environments. In Simon’s work, each image is a standalone project and yet, by adding text, one single image become sufficient to convey the entire message where others might create a whole series to express the same information.

Figure 9. Taryn Simon, The Hoh Rainforest, Understory and 
 Fort Structure, Olympic National Park, Washington, 2008

When looking inwards and exploring more personal and intimate stories, text is often a handwritten addition to a project. Francesca Woodman’s work often used hand written text as well as her own self portrait to covey her thoughts and emotions. Her work Providence (1975-1976) shows her body falling out of a glass-fronted museum cabinet alongside taxidermied animals that bare their teeth at her. The messages that Woodman attempted to convey through her work and the symbols she used were very personal and cryptic.

“Many contemporary self-portraits ask questions and do not always offer answers” (Borzello, 1998, p200). 

In addition to taking photographs, Woodman has presented them in unusual ways including adhering black and white photographs into antique textbooks, allowing the existing text in the book to be visible alongside her images. Some of the images she included were on transparent material so that the writing in the book could be read through it.  Some disordered interior geometries (1980-1981) seems to present us with connections between her work and the book contents by way of echoing ideas of geometry and line. It also hints at a desire for knowledge and resolution, by using photographs in a book from which formulae are taught to resolve geometric problems. In addition to the textbook entries, Woodman adds her own handwritten text scantily throughout the pages, commenting on shape possibly to reflect a desire for perfection, (“almost a square”) and acknowledging difficulties in the human ability to understand complexities of our own existence by referring to the “odd geometry of time” (Woodman in Townsend, 2006, p239). This utilisation of existing text is unusual and by allowing what is already written to show through into her work, may be indicative of a sense of lacking the control over her own situation.   By imposing her own image onto existing historical handwritten documents Woodman could also be revealing a belief her that own life was in some way preordained and that she was merely attempting to fit into to an existing framework.

Woodman’s suicide as a young woman has been much written about and her photographs perhaps hold clues to the thoughts that led to her decision to take her own life. It will never be known the inner feelings that Woodman was experiencing as she produced her work. “Like the self she flaunted and concealed, the camera is both public and private, a force both of glamour and detachment” (Brenson in Loos, 2011).

Figure 10. Francesca Woodman, from Some disordered interior geometries, 1980-1981

Duane Michals uses text and photography “not to tell you what you can see, rather to express what is invisible” (Michals in Johnson, 2004, p246). His work is presented in a playful manner in several series’ of images that follow on from one another forming a linear narrative. Michals work has an appreciation of the unspoken element to a photograph and the addition of handwritten text enables him to convey his ideas in a personal manner. His photographs often featured constructive scenes which enabled manipulation both through visual and textual means, steering the viewer to become absorbed into a fictional storyline.

Figure 11. Duane Michals, There Are Things Here 
 Not Seen in This Photograph, 1977

In her series The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974-75) Martha Rosler highlights the difficulties of communicating and reflecting truth through both text and through the photographic image. “Rosler exposed the vast chasm between dividing the language of the official record from the reality of lived experience, and its private, colloquial modes of communication” (Morley, 2003, p151). Rosler’s work raises awareness of social issues in a particular area of New York, referring to the styles of photography historically adopted to address issues of poverty and despair by those employed to portray such hardships, e.g, Dorothea Lange.

Rosler accepts that the photographs alone are “powerless to deal with the reality” (Rosler in Van Gelder and Westgeest, 2011, p167) and her adoption of the documentary style comments upon the way in which documentary photography shapes its story from one point of view. Rosler also intentionally leaves much white space with her text to allow “for the creation of intervals of reflection”, intervals in which “meanings are allowed to arise” (Rosler in Van Gelder and Westgeest, 2011, p168).

9 10
Figures 12, 13. Martha Rosler, The Bowery in Two Inadequate 
 Descriptive Systems, 1974-75

Chris Harrison’s project Copper horses (2013) combines text and image with sensitivity, as he writes of his experiences growing and his relationship with his father.   One series in the project features his father on the beach in Northumberland looking out to sea. The changes in time are evident from the tide that continues to lap around him as he stands still in the water. The text below each image is apparently handwritten by Harrison, and informs the viewer how his father used to tell him the tall tale that he had swum to Denmark, and Harrison kept questioning why he kept on coming back. The series ends with a personal acknowledgement that Harrison knew now why he kept coming back.

The photographer explained his relationship with his father as being difficult but how he now felt he understood him, and this sensitive acknowledgment of family tensions and developing maturity of thought is clear throughout the work: the addition of the text was essential to conveying Harrison’s unfolding story of acceptance.

Figure 14. Chris Harrison, from Copper Horses, 2013

Ingrid Pollard’s intertextual work The cost of the English landscape (1989) juxtaposes rural Cumbrian landscape scenes with scenes of Sellafield nuclear plant and encourages questioning with the addition of text from contrasting sites in the county, including lines of poetry by Wordsworth that describe the Lake District in a natural and beautiful state. In addition to tackling ideas of environmental impact from the effects of industry and tourism, Pollard also explores ideas of memory and identity often incorporating text to provoke thought around her ideas. In another landscape project Pastoral interlude (1988) Pollard questions ideas of land ownership and the development of the countryside as a tourist venue from a historical perspective. Oceans apart (1989) also includes text alongside images, this time in the style of a family album to covey the connection between European maritime history and personal letters; “the intimate voices that are often overlooked in the official narrative of the Atlantic Ocean” (Pollard, 2012).

Figure 15. Ingrid Pollard, from Oceans apart, 1989

Lorna Simpson’s work uses a variety of media, including photography, moving image and text, to explore ideas of memory and identity. All of her work demands thought and questioning and narratives are intentionally unclear, allowing room for imagination and subjective thinking. “It’s up to the viewer to make connections in her open-ended narratives. Those connections often have to do with race, identity and memory … where a single object […] can come to represent a whole index of possible meanings or readings. (O’Hagan, S. 2014).

13 14Figure 16. Lorna Simpson, Gestures/Reenactments, 1985
Figure 17 Lorna Simpson, Coiffure, 1991

Contradictory text can also prompt questioning and inspire the viewer to take stock of what they are seeing. René Magritte was well known for his surrealist paintings, but also his use of text in particular with the painting The treachery of images (1928-9) in which, according to Berger, he “made two languages (the visual and the verbal) cancel one another out” (Berger, About Looking, 2009, p163). Magritte’s work is very much about freedom to create and freedom to negate the readable meanings in images, therefore creating paradoxical works which remove the restrictions of language and image. Interestingly Magritte depicted ordinary everyday objects in his paintings, objects that are embedded into our culture, to communicate this message of freedom. “The paradox of his art and of his insight was that to destroy familiar experience he needed to use the language of the familiar” (Berger, About Looking, 2009, p165) hence his image of a simple smoking pipe causing such a stir among its audience. Without the text his painting would have been accepted as a picture of a pipe but the simple line of text Magritte added opens up questions and thoughts that would otherwise not have been prompted, demonstrating how the power of text and image combined can generate new messages and ideas.

Figure 18. René Magritte, The treachery of images, 1928-9

List of illustrations


Figure 4. Unknown (c390) Fragment from Quedlinberg Itala, available at (Accessed 28 April 2014)

Figure 5. Spence, J., Murray, M., Martin, R. (c1984) How do I take responsibility for my own body? [photographs] in Spence, J. (1986)  Putting myself in the picture: A political, personal and photographic autobiography London: Camden

Figure 6. Kruger, B. Thinking of you [photograph]
Thinking of you, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Figure 7. Rushca, E. (2003) Pay nothing until April [acrylic on canvas] available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2014)

Figure 8. Teller, J. (2012) The knickers [photograph]
Pictures and text, Göttingen: Steidl

Figure 9. Simon, T. (2008) The Hoh Rainforest, Understory and Fort Structure, Olympic National Park, Washington [photograph] in Simon, T. (2008) 2nd edn.
An American Index of the hidden and unfamiliar, Göttingen: Steidl

Figure 10. Woodman, F. (1980-1981) Some disordered interior geometries, in Townsend, C. (2006) Francesca Woodman: Scattered in space and time
London: Phaidon

Figure 11. Michals, D. (1977) There Are Things Here Not Seen in This Photograph [photograph and text] available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2014)

Figures 12-13. Rosler, M. (1974-1975) The bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems [photographs and text] available at: (Accessed: 11 March 2014)

Figure 14. Harrison, C. (2013) Untitled [photographs] from Copper Horses. available at (Accessed: 06 April 12014)

Figure 15. Pollard, I. (1989) Oceans Apart [photograph and text]
Postcards home (2004) London: Autograph

Figure 16. Simpson, L. (1985) Gestures/Re-enactments [photographs and text] available at (Accessed: 5 April 2014)

Figure 17. Simpson, L. (1991) Coiffure [photographs and text] available at
(Accessed 5 April 2014)

Figure 18. Magritte, R. (1928-9) The treachery of images [painting]
in Pacquet, M. (2000) Magritte, Köln: Taschen


Bachelard, G. in Trigg, D. (2012) The memory of place: a phenomenology of the uncanny. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Baltic (2014) Exhibitions: Lorna Simpson. Available at:
(Accessed: 05 April 2014)

Barthes, R. (1977) Image music text. London: Fontana

Berger, J. (2009) About looking. London: Bloomsbury

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin

Borzello, F. (1998) Seeing ourselves: women’s self portraits.
London: Thames and Hudson

Brenson, M. in Loos, T. (2011) Sharing a guarded legacy, The New York Times, December 1. Available at:
(Accessed: 5 April 2014)

Burnett, R. (2004) How images think. Cambridge, Massachusets: The MIT Press

Crow, D. (2003) Visible signs. Crans-près-Céligny : AVA Publishing

Cruz, A (2012) ‘Words leaking from objects: Thinking with absent photographs’, Journal Of Comparative Research In Anthropology & Sociology, 3, 1, pp. 101-116, SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost (Accessed: 13 April 2014)

Gallardo, L., Furman, R., and Kulkarni, S. (2009) ‘Explorations of depression: Poetry and narrative in autoethnographic qualitative research’

Qualitative Social Work, September, vol. 8 no. 3, p289, available at:, (Accessed: 28 April 2014)

Heller, S. in Kruger, B. (1999) Thinking of you
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Hirsch, M. (2012) Family frames: photography narrative and postmemory. Cambridge Massachusetts and London England: Harvard University Press.

Indiana, G. in Kruger, B. (1999)
Thinking of you. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Kruger, B. (1999) Thinking of you. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Marshall, L. and Meachem, L. (2010) How to use images London: Laurence King Publishing

Morley, S. (2003) Writing on the wall: Word and image in modern art.
London: Thames and Hudson

O’Hagan, S. (2014)| (Accessed 17 April 2014)

Pacquet, M. (2000) Magritte. Köln: Taschen

Pearce, L. (1991) Woman Image Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite art and literature. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press

Petry, M. (2013) Nature morte: Contemporary artists invigorate the still life tradition. London: Thames and Hudson

Pollard, I. (2012) Ingrid Pollard photography: Oceans Apart  1989 – selected images. Available at: (Accessed: 25 April 2014)

Rose, G. (2010), Doing Family Photography : The Domestic, The Public And The Politics Of Sentiment, Farnham, England: Ashgate, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed 21 April 2014.

Selby, A. (ed) (2009) Art and text. London: Black Dog Publishing Ltd.

Shinkei (c15th C) in Stanley-Baker, J. (1992) (reprint) Japanese art London: Thames and Hudson

Simon, T. (2008) An American Index of the hidden and unfamiliar. Göttingen: Steidl

Spence, J. (1986) Putting myself in the picture: A political, personal and photographic autobiography. London: Camden.

Teller, J. (2012) Pictures and text. Göttingen: Steidl

Trigg, D. (2012) The memory of place: a phenomenology of the uncanny.

Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Van Gelder, H. and Westgeest, H. (2011) Photography theory in historical perspective. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Winkler, J 2010, ‘Nightwatch’, Contemporary Aesthetics, 8, p. 135, Supplemental Index, EBSCOhost, viewed 21 April 2014.

Woodman, F. in Townsend, C. (2006) Francesca Woodman: Scattered in space and time. London: Phaidon